Life without nukes: Japan Inc thrives

An elderly man looks through photographs, which were repaired after being washed away by the earthquake and tsunami at a gymnasium March 10, 2014 in Sendai, Miyagi prefecture, Japan.
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An elderly man looks through photographs, which were repaired after being washed away by the earthquake and tsunami at a gymnasium March 10, 2014 in Sendai, Miyagi prefecture, Japan.

Japan's economy is thriving despite the four-year shutdown of the country's nuclear power stations following the massive earthquake and tsunami in March 2011, analysts say.

Japan's switch to fossil fuel following the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant drove up electricity prices by around 30 percent since 2011, raising concerns that energy costs could hit manufacturers' bottom lines. Yet concerns appear to have been overblown as manufacturers were quick to adapt, while the Japanese yen's over 40 percent decline against the dollar since 2013 helped boosted profits.

"Japanese manufacturers have adapted to the 30 percent electricity price increase by cutting back on energy consumption," said Japan Research Institute (JRI) chief researcher Takumi Fujinami. "Higher prices haven't had much of an effect on manufacturers' bottom lines because electricity represents only around 5 percent of raw material costs."

Toyota, for example, which generates around a fifth of sales from the two million cars it makes in Japan every year, is forecast to post a 15 percent on-year jump in operating profit to 2.78 trillion yen ($22.9 billion) this fiscal year – its second straight year of record profits.

Still, Fujinami noted that manufacturers need to plan for higher energy costs going forward.

"The days of cheaper electricity are over and probably won't be coming back," he said. "It's time for the Japanese economy to make the transition to a less industrial, more service sector-oriented economy."

Nuclear restart imminent?

But while Japan Inc appears to be thriving, business leaders continue to argue that only nuclear energy can provide the stable supply that powers Japanese industry.

Ahead of December's snap elections, Japan's big business lobby Keidanren called on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government to "provide the general public with a lucid explanation of the necessity of nuclear power" in order to "accelerate the process for restarting nuclear power plants," according to a policy proposal published in October.

Abe has responded to business demands, pledging to begin putting nuclear reactors back online without setting any firm dates, but public sentiment remains a hurdle.

Fifty-six percent of respondents in a nationwide Nikkei newspaper poll conducted in August were opposed restarting the reactors, in line with other regional polls.

"The fact that there is still not a single reactor running in the country, in spite of the strong desire of the political and economic elites to bring back nuclear energy, attests to the continuous obstacles public opinion presents," said Sophia University professor of politics Koichi Nakano.

Voters remain worried because the Fukushima plant does not appear to be "under control."

Tokyo Electric Power Company – the operator of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant – confirmed those fears last month, admitting that highly radioactive material has been seeping into the sea for nearly a year.

"Fukushima is obviously not under control and it's out of the question that other reactors are restarted before it is," said Coalition Against Nukes representative and National Confederation of Trade Union executive committee member Kenichi Igarashi.

Yet, while Abe recently conceded that restarting reactors would go against voters' wishes, a restart may be unavoidable.

"We cannot go zero-nuclear based on the opinion polls alone," Abe said in parliament, according to a February 18 Mainichi daily newspaper report.